Whether you call it cocoa or hot chocolate, a steaming beverage that’s creamy, sweet and chocolaty hits the spot on a winter’s day. At a recent Seven Days editorial meeting, some staffers were practically drooling thinking about it. A few of us rushed out to get a cup directly afterward.
If you’re the rare person who doesn’t like or can’t consume dairy or chocolate or sugar, you have our sympathy. But, if like the following connoisseurs of the beverage, you’re always on the lookout for a superlative specimen, read on. This is not a comprehensive survey, but recommendations of particular favorites. (Note: Technically speaking, some of these drinks are “cocoas,” with a cocoa-powder base; others are “drinking chocolates,” based on chocolate chips or shavings.)
Amy Lilly gave herself a treat and headed to Lake Champlain Chocolates without her young son to indulge in a very grown-up dark-chocolate drink in peace. Kathryn Flagg took two for the team — in Middlebury and Vergennes — on the way to her Addison County home. Corin Hirsch crossed state lines to Walpole, N.H., for her personal best, while Alice Levitt paid a visit to a Scandinavian food cart in Montpelier. Cathy Resmer routinely enjoys a hot chocolate in her Winooski ’hood, and Megan James found a nearby cuppa that melted her ambivalence about the drink.
There may be a place for Swiss Miss — even these picky drinkers say they love finding packets of the stuff in warming huts along a ski trail. But there are better options in the premix department: Some Vermont chocolate purveyors offer packaged varieties, so you can try this at home.
I’ve been known to wax poetic about Vergennes Laundry co-owner Didier Murat’s espresso: I’ve had my fair share of lattes in my life, and Murat’s is, hands down, the best. But with my own bun in the oven, I’ve cut back on my latte habit at this spare, hip bakery on Vergennes’ Main Street. The silver lining? I finally have reason to try Murat’s take on hot cocoa.
First Murat fetches three petite crème fraîche truffles from a tin beneath the counter, and drops the dark chocolate confections — his own creation — into the base of a small bowl. Next comes a dash of cane sugar, followed by frothy, steamed whole milk (skim or soy is available on request). When I ask the soft-spoken Frenchman’s opinion on how best to savor the $2.50 drink, he offers this advice: “Stir a little bit. And try to save a spoonful for the end.”
I do as instructed. The first sips are delicate and foamy — warm milk laced with the faint taste of cocoa. The drink grows richer as the truffles melt, and by the end, my final spoonful is thick chocolate. Smooth, tangy and bittersweet, it’s the perfect cure for a bracingly cold winter day. My go-to latte may have some competition.
I have a love-hate relationship with hot chocolate. On really cold days, or during listless winter afternoons in the office, I crave the stuff. What starts as a subtle hankering quickly snowballs into full-blown obsession. If I could just wrap my hands around a steaming mug of creamy cocoa, I think, I’d have reason to go on living.
When I get my wish, the first sip is heaven. But, just as quickly as the desire arose, I lose interest. There’s no caffeine buzz to keep me slurping. I start to resent all that creaminess. It’s rare that I actually finish a hot chocolate, the way I did at Maglianero in Burlington last week.
According to Maglianero’s Nola Ricci, the Dutch-process cocoa the staff uses covers all the bases: certified organic, fair trade, kosher. Baristas typically use whole milk but will happily substitute anything from skim to soy upon request.
There’s nothing unique about Maglianero’s hot cocoa, but all the little things that can make or break the drink were done perfectly — as they should be at $3 for a small. Nothing is worse than lukewarm cocoa; Maglianero’s arrived just shy of scalding. I hate tasting more milk than chocolate, but this drink was so chocolatey, it was almost purple under its thin layer of foam.
Best of all, it was tasty until the last sip. I made it to the bottom of my mug and was rewarded with a rich, velvety sludge.
Grünhaus Nordic Street Eats
Some rules for ordering hot chocolate at the Grünhaus Nordic Street Eats cart on State Street in Montpelier:
Don’t swing by expecting soy or skim. The drinking chocolate is mixed each morning with a combination of whole milk and light cream.
Don’t forget to dress warmly. The Grünhaus is an outdoor cart, not a cozy café.
Do feel free to call ahead. Doug and Jennifer Haugen will be happy to have a warm paper cup ready and filled with the hot, thick nectar for you.
It’s worth following the rules. With a whole-fat, no-guilt outlook influenced by their cuisine’s Scandinavian roots, the Haugens don’t skimp on quality.
Each morning, while she prepares lefse, a crêpe-like Norwegian potato flatbread used in her cart’s wraps, Jennifer Haugen devotes about an hour to creating her liquid gold. She carefully melts a combination of Belgian and Swedish brands in both semisweet and milk flavors. The chocolate is mixed and remixed with additional cocoa and sugar before it’s ready to go into the Bunn brewer that keeps it hot all day.
The large cup ($2.50) is filled with liquid sturdy enough to stand a spoon in. But don’t bother; you’ll soon be finished with the smooth, intense liquid chocolate — and very possibly heading back for more.
Block Gallery and Coffeehouse
I’m a café mocha fiend, but there’s only so much espresso I can consume in a day before I start getting twitchy. The Mexican hot chocolate at the Block Gallery in Winooski is a more appropriate midafternoon pick-me-up. It won’t keep me up at night, but, as lead barista and gallery manager Kate Braland explains, “It’s got a kick to it.”
The kick comes from the cardamom, cinnamon and cayenne pepper that the coffee shop adds to its Lake Champlain hot chocolate mix. Braland whisks that chocolatey, spicy goodness into the steamed milk before handing me my drink — $3.38 for a medium.
How much of a kick does it have? Braland estimates it at “mild to medium,” which, after I taste mine, seems about right. The drink is definitely more spicy than sweet. My tongue and throat burn slightly after every sip; a hint of chocolate flavor emerges when the tingling subsides.
The Mexican mixture contains grains of spice, and when I bite one, I get a little burst of heat. It’s enough to keep me alert and focused, even on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
L.A. Burdick Chocolates
One doesn’t usually think of hot chocolate being as bracing as, say, a double espresso or a dram of Scotch. At L.A. Burdick Chocolates in Walpole, N.H., though, it’s just as powerful, and totally worth the drive on a frigid afternoon.
L.A. Burdick has been sourcing Caribbean and Central American chocolates since 1984, and at the counter of its café — about five minutes from the Vermont border, just off I-91’s Exit 5 — servers offer up hot versions of the chocolate in dark, milk and white flavors.
Regulars sometimes order a combination of all three. For me, though, dark is the only way to go. For a small mug ($3.50), the barista spoons a blend of dark-chocolate shavings into a tin of whole milk, then steams all of it together into a chocolaty froth. Then she pours it into a mug, tops it with more steamed milk and showers it with a mélange of Grenadian spices — clove, cinnamon, bay leaf, nutmeg and citrus peel.
The first sip is pure, hot cream with an underpinning of spice. On the next, intense, barely sweet chocolate starts to seep through, tasting almost like chocolate earth. Each swallow is progressively richer, darker and more arresting, until you’re not sure you can make it through the entire cup.
“It’s intense,” sums up manager Cathy Watson as she watches me try to finish. As I drive away, I feel buzzed and warmed from the inside out, and it lasts for hours.
Lake Champlain Chocolates
Lake Champlain Chocolates’ Pine Street hot chocolate bar is the winter refuge of all South End families. Kids can warm up with paper cups of their after-school or après-sled reward and then color at tables overlooking the factory floor — or just throw various small limbs against the glass wall that separates the two, as some are inexplicably wont to do.
But a childless trip to the hot chocolate counter is a different kind of reward. No more obligatory Traditional Hot Chocolate — one of four offerings on the sweeter side made from a powder mixed in Canada. Dark-chocolate lovers can choose from four drinks created by melting chocolate in whole milk: Old World, a 54-percent-chocolate concoction; the similarly proportioned Peppermint; bittersweet Sao Thomé, named for an island off the coast of Africa, the world’s largest source of chocolate; and Tanzania.
That last one, made from single-origin cacao beans, is 75 percent chocolate, with a “fruity, sour” taste, according to barista Emily McCracken, who admits that one is not her “personal fave.” But its kind is offered nowhere else in Burlington, so I decide to try it in the 8-ounce size for $3.70.
McCracken mixes three tablespoons of Tanzania chocolate chips and a teaspoon of unsweetened cocoa powder into milk, then zaps the mix with the steaming wand on the espresso machine. Before pouring it into a white ceramic cup (on a saucer), she offers to top it with whipped cream or two giant marshmallows made from scratch at LCC’s Church Street venue. But I opt for the unalloyed taste of northeast Africa, where, according to chocolate buyer Ellen Reed — company founder Jim Lampman’s daughter — the cacao plantations are populated by banana trees that give the terroir a distinctive sweetness.
My cup of hot chocolate is creamy and thick, and as filling as a small meal. There’s no overt sugary taste, but it isn’t bitter, either — just extremely chocolaty. It’s an acquired taste that I’ve instantly acquired. As it happens, the very next customer admits he did the same years ago as he orders his daily Tanzania.
“I’d like to take it home, but they don’t sell it,” laments Peruvian American Pedro Salas, a fellow customer. (Lake Champlain sells only its Old World — as a can of shavings and its milk-chocolate powder mixes.) “So I have to come here all the time,” he adds with a smile. Salas doesn’t seem to mind.
Middlebury Chocolates’ storefront on Route 7, south of town, is mainly a production facility for chocolatiers Andy and Stephanie Jackson. Here, the two roast and stone-grind cocoa beans for use in their bars and truffles. That means, if you want to sample their house-ground sipping chocolate, plan ahead: They’re only open on Fridays and Saturdays.
And nothing says “Saturday” quite like a cup of cocoa, which comes in two specialties — one laced with vanilla (your “everyday, on-the-go cocoa,” Stephanie Jackson says); the other with allspice and nutmeg (“the one you drink while you sit down and look at the snow”). Stephanie ladles chocolate shavings into each cup, whisks the chocolate with a splash of hot water, then adds whole milk (skim or almond is available on request). The finale atop this $3.50 treat is a dollop of homemade maple whipped cream. The drink is rich and pleasantly gritty. There’s a little bite to the spiced cocoa, but the undeniable star here is the chocolate flavor — bold and slightly fruity.
Bad news, though, for connoisseurs hankering for the Jacksons’ brew: They’re closing their storefront after Valentine’s Day to focus exclusively on wholesale. The good news? Their cocoa mix will still be for sale, so you can always whip up a batch at home.
The print version of this article was headlined "Cocoa Nuts".